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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Minorities: all politics, all the time Add to ...

Political calculations will never be removed from government, but in minority governments, especially a string of them, every decision is taken with short-term political calculations in mind.

Today's problems in whatever field are complex. They take time to think, get expert advice and consult widely about, and then to be put through the political process. Little of this happens in unstable minority governments.

Put another way, it's hard enough to get politicians to think long-term at the best of times. Try getting politicians in a majority government, let alone a minority, to think about broad geopolitical trends and where they leave Canada. Or about the country's competitive position a decade from now. Or where we want Ottawa to position itself in postsecondary education, health care, transportation etc.

It's impossible to know how many Canadians like minority governments, per se, but many do. Minorities are more fun for those who enjoy political theatre. Voters who don't like the largest party of the day think minorities are great because they sometimes stop the biggest party from getting its way. Still others think minorities are more "representative" and "democratic."

There's a reason, however, why all around the democratic world, presidents or prime ministers and their majority governments have fixed terms of three, four, five or six years. Anything more mocks the democratic desire for periodic accountability; anything significantly less places too great a premium on partisan politics.

Minorities in our system centralize even more power in the hands of the prime minister and his political operators. Any government always on political alert has to run everything through the political nerve centre of the government: the Prime Minister's Office. The result is that even small stuff has to be vetted by PMO.

That kind of centralization has been a hallmark of Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the beginning, since he distrusted so many ministers and utterly dominated the government. He had begun, after a while, to trust a few ministers and give them some leeway, but in an all-politics-all-the-time pre-election situation, centralized control is back with a vengeance.

Throughout Ottawa, important policies are held up, or never see the light of day, because they don't meet short-term political requirements. Groups that want to raise issues are either refused a hearing or given one that isn't serious. Very few pieces of legislation got passed since the last election, including some budget bills.

One example among dozens. The government has prepared an overhaul of the refugee-determination system. The system cries out for change. Whether the government introduces the measures depends on the political calculations of the PMO about whether they want to divert pre-campaign attention away from the economy. Even if the package is introduced, it will never be debated in this Parliament because of the election.

Minority governments take easy decisions, but avoid hard, although often necessary, ones.

The core of any government is taxing and spending. As we have seen repeatedly from the minority Conservatives, they have done the easy things: cut taxes and raised spending. Now, they propose, according to a close reading of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's speech in Victoria, to continue for a few more years (at least) refusing to take hard decisions.

The government won't raise taxes, won't curtail transfers to provinces, clearly won't cut defence spending or pensions, so eventually will have to cut deeply in many other areas, but won't say where or when. Hard decisions have been pushed over the rainbow. Forget deep cuts, though, if the government is a minority when the time comes for them.

In theory, minority governments should force parties to work together to keep Parliament functioning for at least a few years. In practice, since everyone is looking at every statement and decision through a short-term political lens, posturing and partisanship overwhelm the theoretical possibilities of co-operation.

Parties can't easily co-operate today when they think they might be campaigning against each other tomorrow. The big parties certainly won't co-operate, since they seem to believe that the next election will give them the knockout blow for a majority.

The Bloc Québécois offers co-operation, but on such limited terms - all take for Quebec but no give - that the offer is better described as political extortion than co-operation. And the NDP, generally speaking, is of such an opposition mindset that co-operation seems to mean the much bigger parties should mostly do what the NDP, the smaller party, wants.

Four elections in just over five years, at a cost of more than $1-billion. All politics all, or almost all, the time. It's a helluva way to run a country

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